I don’t mind hanging out at airports. It means I’m financially comfortable enough to be able to afford to fly somewhere. It means I’m about to go somewhere exciting or I’m about to go back home and be close to my kids again. Not everyone feels that way. That may be an understatement. It’s hard not to overhear conversations between people complaining about the ways they were inconvenienced and the injustices they experienced by having to wait longer, switch planes, move seats, etc.
The airport is an inherently divisive place. They are setup to highlight and exploit the divisions between the haves and the have-way-too-muches. The airplane itself is no different. If you have extra money and are willing to give it to the airline, you get to board the plane first and get off first. You get access to better food and drinks, bigger seats and more immediate service. On top of that, all of the other, less wealthy passengers have to walk past you and see your comfort in contrast to theirs.
I’ve recently returned from a long trip with long travel days. Buying the cheapest tickets possible meant that both leaving and returning I had two layovers and full 24 hour days between initial take-off and eventual arriving at my destination. It’s not always fun, but I can handle it. But this time something happened that had never happened to me before. I started to feel claustrophobic.
Lots of people I know fly with anxiety and so they sit by the aisle to give them the most freedom. I enjoy looking out the window, so that’s where I sit. I means less space and greater inconvenience if I need to use the bathroom, but I have a good blatter and enjoy the challenge of trying to see where we are by recognizing something I see out the window. My crisis began on the first of three flights on my way home. I arrived at the airport at 11pm and used the bathroom soon after. Upon boarding my plane at 2am, I thought about going again, but it would have been a hassle and I figured I had gone recently enough. We were maybe an hour into our four and a half hour flight when the claustrophobia set in. I was by the window, so already a smaller seat. The person beside had a larger than average frame, which ate up a bit of my precious little space. And, my checked bag came in a bit overweight, so I had to carry a few extra items with me so my lap and the storage area under the seat in front of me were both full. I took off my sweater and my shoes, which helped, but I still felt restricted. My mind filled with images of me violently stretching my arms out regardless of who might be in the way, then barging out past my seatmates where I would run screaming up and down the aisle until I was subdued and tranquilized. Instead I sat with my eyes closed using every mental trick in my arsenal to calm myself down, thinking I would only survive the ride minute by minute.
On my last flight that day, another strange thing happened. A child had made a fair bit of noise on the flight, and when we were finally disembarking, the father of the toddler apologized to everyone around him, but he did it by voicing an apology from the child. “Sorry everyone, for all the noise I made. I’m just a kid. I hope you can forgive me.” It was silly. I don’t mean him speaking as his child. I did that all the time when they were babies. I still do it. I even add fun voices. It was silly that he didn’t think we understood. Most of the people around were also adults over thirty, the vast majority of whom were entirely unphased by this. I didn’t like it, but I’ve been there myself a few times. I get it. The whole situation sucks for all of us. I would cry too if anyone would care. How could any of us hold any ill will toward that child? When I was in that situation, I worried about what people around me thought too, but I was worried they were judging my parenting, not my child. What he didn’t know is that many of us would have traded places with him, some of us out of nostalgia, some of us because we think we would do a better job. He put almost no work into quieting the child, and when he did, it was clear that the child was entirely unfamiliar with the concept of being told not to do things.
Back to my brief stint with claustrophobia. I didn’t want to trouble the people beside me. I hate doing that, especially at 3am when we’re all trying to sleep. I wanted to walk up and down the aisle, but that would have bothered even more people, including the flight attendants, so I couldn’t do that. The only thing I could do was go to the bathroom as an excuse to walk around, but how could I return to my captivity once I’d had that freedom? Finally, my seatmate at the aisle got up to go to the bathroom. The person in the middle seat moved, so I knew they were awake, and I took that as my best chance to get up. While I was waiting for the lavatory to be free, I started thinking back to my big supper, how much water I had to drink there, and how maybe this was the whole problem all along. By the time I got back to my seat, my psychological problems were gone. It turns out that my body problem combined with my social problem became a brain problem. Not only could I relax, but in the same confined space I got something resembling sleep.
The woman beside me wasn’t inconvenienced at all when I asked her to move so I could use the bathroom. Nobody looked grumpy when this toddler apologized to us through the words of his/her father. Maybe the other travellers aren’t as bad as we think. Maybe the scariest thing about travelling is that we imagine everyone around us to be the grumpiest version of ourselves. We justify their imagined irritability because in the same situation we would want our annoyance to be justified too. I’m not saying we shouldn’t care what other people think. We are all connected. We should care what other people think and feel. What I’m saying is that if our greatest fear is that everyone else thinks how we think, then they aren’t the problem, we are.